Beauty in the Beast
By Nancy Powell
There’s a beauty pageant going on in Redlands this weekend, and I imagine the scene as something like this: a well-heeled girl and her letterman jacket-clad date are cutting a trail across a cemetery in the cold of night, the guy goofing on the “dead” and the gal doing her little scary face “please, don’t” wimpy cry. Unbeknownst to them, out pops these bleach white, grotesquely misshapen faces, tiaras on heads of stringy, knotted hair. The girl turns around, screams, and clings onto her boyfriend, who in his mockery finally grasps the horror of the situation. The music, deafening in its suddenness, blares on, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” plays loudly as zombies emerge, perform a stiff-limbed dance and surround the audience, ready to feast.
All right, I’m speculating, but I don’t think it’s too far from the truth. It’s kind of what A.J. Herrera, progenitor of the Inland Empire Comics Expo, would envision for his inaugural Zombie Beauty Pageant, although he remains mum about the exact details. Think Miss America going zombie.
“It’ll start off with a dance number,” says Herrera. “The emcee will be singing while he’s introducing them. Then he’ll go over the contestants with the info off a form, and the character that they’re portraying, how they became a zombie, why they’re doing the Zombie Beauty Pageant. After the dance numbers, they’ll be asked to do a talent contest. Maybe they had a talent when they were alive, but because you’re undead, you can’t do it anymore. So think more along the lines of a zombie sitting stiffly on the floor with a hula hoop and going ‘rerrrrrrrr’.”
If the idea of Zombie queen appears diametrically opposed to traditional notions of beauty, well, in a nutshell they are. But for all the popular interest in zombies and in America’s need to create equal opportunities for all humanoids roaming the earth, zombies deserve a fair shake at having their day—er, night—in the limelight.
“People need to know that zombies can still be beautiful, even in the afterlife,” says Herrera.
We can thank George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead for birthing the American zombie industry as we know it and Shaun of the Dead and Army of Darkness for turning the macabre into comedic fodder. However, long before Romero came up with the idea of flesh-eating creatures (which, after all, was inspired by Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend) and before the back story of pandemic illness reducing the living to the walking dead of night, zombies had an origin rooted in Haitian and West African religious folklore.
Voodoo’s matriarchal lineage begins in West African vodoun, which many consider an ancestral religion but really hails from the afro-magicobotanical practice known as hoodoo. According to Wikipedia and the tenets of vodou, a bokor (sorcerer or shamans) revives the dead and captures his soul, thus empowering the “zombie” to a lifetime of indentured servitude, until something as simple as salt returns this being to the grave.
Haitian vodou follows a more scientific route. According to Wade Davis’ The Serpent and the Rainbow and Passage of Darkness, zombie-ism occurs as a result of pharmacological intervention. Natural potions and powders administered to living persons induce a death-like, animated trance, resulting in that stiffened walk (owing to paralysis and numbing from the drug). The awakened “zombie” usually turns psychotic. And yes, Haitian voodoo happens to be a control issue.
In film, Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie first exposed American audiences to the concept of a zombie. It wasn’t until Romero’s seminal work that zombies captured the world’s imagination. In fact, recent flicks like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead have taken zombie-ism into the realm of politics and turned them into anthems of anarchy for the 21st century.
“28 Days Later made zombie-ism real. It brought it up to date to current times, with technology and all, so it made it closer to home,” says Herrera.
Queens of the Undead
The idea of a beauty pageant for the undead was born not by necessity, but by mere coincidence. Herrera and his cohort were looking for something fun to do for Halloween. A company ran a haunted maze for last year’s celebration at the Fox Events Center, of which Herrera was an exhibitor. The people who organized the event no longer wanted to have anything to do with it and asked Herrera to take the reigns.
“My company had a booth up front and we had a contest that if you came dressed as a zombie where we would take a picture and put it in our comic book,” recalls Herrera.
Looking for ideas, Herrera returned to that idea of the contest. He pitched the concept of the Zombie Beauty Pageant to his crew at Forbidden Panel, and the ideas took off.
“I’d never been in a regular beauty pageant, but the thought of coming up with a zombie character who would be competing in all of the events of, say, Miss America, was so great to me because you could go about it in several ways,” says Lynn Paulus, media relations and model contact for Forbidden Panel.
“You could be serious, turn it into a parody of beauty pageants,” continues Paulus. “You’d have to think of what a zombie could and couldn’t do, what their instincts would be in each given situation and how to portray that.”
Contestants will compete in the areas of swimwear, casual evening gown and talent for a $100 to $200 grand prize. The Zombie Queen will have the additional responsibilities of putting in appearances at conventions, serving as a mentor to potential zombies-in-training and posing on the cover of Zombie Kill Squad.
“Miss I.E. Zombie Queen will be recognized just like any living beauty pageant winner,” says Paulus. “I like the idea of fighting for zombie rights or calling for peace between the living and the undead. It all depends on what kind of zombie wins . . . will she even have the intelligence to know what’s going on or will she just see the rest of the world as food.”
A Zombie’s True Colors, Shining
The contestants participating in the Zombie pageant come from all walks of life. Most contestants are die-hard Romero fans and the genre in general. Some, Herrera admits, are so babe-licious that it’s mind boggling to imagine them behind such phantasmagorical makeup. Just like Shoeless Joe Jackson’s ghost says in Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come.”
One such comer is Brianna Maynard, who heard about the contest by way of mouth from a good friend. Maynard emailed the person in charge and arrived, ready to rock.
“I always loved zombie movies and horror films in general,” says Maynard. “Life is too short not to. I was a cheerleader all through grade school, [I thought] how hilarious will it be to have my “Zombie contestant” pictures next to the cheerleading ones on my mom’s mantle?”
According to Maynard, more and more people are getting into the revolution for the flesh-eating undead. She cites among her favorite zombie flicks of all time Zombieland the Resident Evil franchise, and “Alice” as her alter-ego due to her kick-butt maneuvers.
“Zombieland has some good tips in there—limber up!” says Maynard when asked about her favorite zombie dances and songs. “I don’t think it’s a dance, but the part in Shaun of the Dead where they are singing a song and the zombie moans and becomes part of it.”
Meanwhile, Paulus won’t be participating as a contestant, but she will take great glee in becoming the zombie mascot for her boss’ company.
“My zombie alter-ego was formed at the first Inland Empire Comic Expo, as a Zombie Kill Squad member who missed and got bitten,” says Paulus. “Rose [Neuharth] is the zombie who bit me, so we tend to stick together . . . I’m going to enjoy adding more depth to my ZKS character in the future. So far, I haven’t turned just yet . . . we’ll just have to wait and see if I start gnawing on people.”
Blood Letting in the Empire
Herrera reiterates that attendees of the Zombie Beauty Pageant take the event seriously. No guarantees could be made, as some contestants still believe they are alive and will take the opportunity to partake of human flesh. After all, each contestant is a zombie reincarnate, random break outs may occur and, in which case the patrols of Herrera’s Zombie Kill Squad will try to maintain a sense of decorum. For that reason, he advises that human members of the audience dress appropriately.
“I can’t say,” deadpans Herrera. “You’re taking a chance. We are going to have a splash zone for spills, and there will be some security provided. But the numbers could be overwhelming. Who knows? It’ll be a lot of fun, and it’ll be something they discuss in the Inland Empire for some time.”
Could an Occupy Zombie be in the works?
First Annual Inland Empire Zombie Beauty Pageant at Fox Event Center, 123 Cajon St., Redlands, (909) 792-3888; www.iecomicexpo.com. Sun, Oct. 30, 7PM. $10.